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When Assistant Professor Lucas Melgaço of the Department of Criminology names his favourite spot in Brussels, it is more than just a place he enjoys going to. His B-spot is also his domain of research, it is his Living Lab. “I really like the steps of the Beurs and Anspachlaan, because a lot goes on here.”
This article was previously published in HENRI, the full magazine can be read here.
Text: Lies Feron, Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele
Assistant Professor Lucas Melgaço teaches “Crime and the City” and “Police and Security” to master students in criminology, and is researching public order and protests in Brussels. On the steps of the Beurs and its immediate surroundings, he is constantly taking pictures, observing and interviewing citizens.
“When you ask people what the most symbolic place in Brussels is, most of them will say the Grote Markt. But I think it is the Beurs and the space in front of it. To me this is more representative of the diversity of Brussels. If you just think of a few events that have taken place here lately, you can see how rich it is,”
Melgaço explains: “Historically, this has been a symbolic point for demonstrations. Until the installation of the pedestrian zone, most marches used to pass by here. After the terrorist attacks in March, this was the place the people chose to honour the victims and to grieve together. That was a spontaneous and bottom-up initiative. It’s the place chosen by Picnic the Streets, a sit-in protest in favour of not only a pedestrian zone but better transport alternatives for the city. They might be just steps, mere piles of bricks, but if you add the many layers of history to it you can make a movie.”
That movie could start at its beginnings, when in the middle of the 19th century the city decided to liven up the economic activity of the downtown area by covering the river Zenne to prevent it from flooding, creating a central axis from north to south, and building a stock market. It was built on the ruins of the 13th-century monastery of the Friars Minor, which can still be seen in the underground museum in Beursstraat.
The stock market was designed by architect Léon Suys in a neo-Palladian style, after the example of the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The two giant lions at the entrance hall represent the young nation; with a little imagination they also symbolise the bull and bear of the stock markets.
With the recent relocating of Euronext – the merged stock exchange of the Netherlands, Belgium and France – to a building next to the cathedral, 142 years of stock exchange history now came to an end. A new life for the inside of the building is now being discussed.
But it has never been its interior that has made the Beurs such an interesting place. Its significance stems from its exterior. Melgaço knows why it’s so special: “It is the entrance to downtown Brussels, which is in fact the connection between the tourist Brussels and the Brussels of the locals. It is a central meeting point, it is a place of protest but it is also a place where people sit and contemplate the city. I like that thought. It is a strong image.”
We meet at 9am. It’s rainy and cold, and the steps of the Beurs are nothing like the vibrant place they might become later that day or night. The only disturbance we encounter is the city’s cleaning force. They clean the steps every two months, only to find it dirty again a few days later. But they go about their Sisyphean task with humour and patiently let us shoot some photos first.
Melgaço explains his Living Lab: “I always bring my students here. The Beurs is one of the most important stops in our city walks. They are master students in criminology, but from next year I will also teach students in the new master in urban studies. We use the pedestrian zone as a study case.”
With his PhD in social geography, Melgaço combines research fields such as surveillance, public order, protests, urban conflicts and the relationship between ICT and security. “I do research on the conflicts in public space,” he says. “I study why certain people are allowed to occupy certain streets while other people are not. What is behind the negotiation of public space? To whom does public space belong? Who has the right to the city?”
Melgaço names some of the conflicts he has been observing. “The municipality installed table tennis tables in the pedestrian zone, and I observed how they are being hogged by certain groups, who block access to other groups wanting to use them. I observe the negotiations that go along with these interactions. The dynamics in this place also change during the course of day. That’s why I come here with my students at different times, including at night. Time is an important variable: Delivery vans are allowed until 11am, and at weekends there are tourists and a lot of public events organised by the city. During the night there are divergences between the people who live here and the groups who use the streets for partying.”
Melgaço also studies the police. “The police have the concept of defending public order. I want to find out why they expel one group and not the other. For instance, the police were somewhat lenient with the right-wing protesters who marched to the steps of the Beurs after the terror attacks. Some people criticised that, but in the eyes of the police they were not acting against the law and public order. It was only when a confrontation broke out between right-wing and pro-migrant groups about who has the right to protest on the steps of the Beurs that police acted by expelling the right-wing group. (see youtube video). A week later, the president of the human rights league was arrested in front of the steps because the police had not allowed any protest that day and they considered his presence here a sort of protest, even though he was there as an individual. There is a thin line between using the city for protest and using the city as a mere public space– it is not black and white, and the police have the discretion to choose how to deal with that.”
In the past, Melgaço would come here at least every two weeks, to observe a demonstration and to see how the police reacted. Today, he comes less, as fewer demonstrations have been allowed since the pedestrian zone was installed.
The future of the Beurs building remains uncertain. Euronext has leased the building to the city of Brussels. An early thought was to install a beer museum. But since the terrorist attacks, there are also thoughts of making a peace temple, and thus in a way unifying the insides of the building with what has been happening on the streets. It was the people who asked for a pedestrian zone between the Grote Markt and downtown. The city followed. It was the people who made the steps of the Beurs into a national memorial place of solidarity. Will the city follow, or will it – as some other plans suggest – even close the steps so people have no access to them anymore?
Whatever happens, Melgaço will be there to observe.
Follow Melgaço on twitter: @lucas_melgaco